“The only thing I ever told that young man to do was sing ‘aeroplane’ instead of ‘airplane’ on ‘The Letter’— I was just tryin’ to make it flow better.”
Dan Penn, producer.
It’s hard to imagine the first line of The Letter sounding different, but aeroplane was not the natural choice for a song recorded in the USA. Airplane is the American English word for “a powered flying vehicle with fixed wings.” Powered flight was claimed by the Wright Brothers in 1903 and the original, mid-19th century French word aéroplane didn’t suit the new story of American progress and invention. British English had long adopted their French neighbour’s word, discarding the accent and tweaking the pronunciation to make it sound ‘English’. So aeroplane was there for the choosing, as a variety of English, in Memphis, 1967.
According to Dan Penn, the record producer, 16 year old local vocalist, Alex Chilton, first sang the word as airplane. Anyone in 1960s America would have done the same. One of those “You like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes” moments. But I imagine Alex struggled to get his airplane into the air.
Try it: Gimme a ticket for an airplane. To make airplane fit the music, you have to stretch air into a thin, floating, wispy sound. Aaair-plane. You have to jump too hard on an, which forces you to call just one, single airplane into your listeners’ imaginations, not one of all possible airplanes. An airplane sounds small and unsure, slightly vague. The first line of the song loses all its energy and fizzles out in a whiny ane. Not a powerful beginning.
Sounds paint pictures and all words carry personal comet tails of meaning. Even tiny, functional a/an.
Dan Penn’s advice to change from airplane to aeroplane is simple but transformative. Aer takes the stress, leaving an in peace to get on with its indefinite article work in the shadows. An aer-o-plane is a solid, powerful, certain thing. It’s one plane, chosen from many. An airplane is a flimsy, shadow creature in comparison.
The r of aeroplane provides a wonderful hinge of sound. It whooshes forward onto the o and straight through to plane. That central o forces the r to roll a little. It becomes an active engine of sound, the rrum rrum of a powerful motor.
In airplane, the r can’t do anything powerful. It’s trapped by the ai diphthong before it. It is a light breath. Air. The r can’t roll forward onto the hard p of plane. That p is a wall. A full stop.
Air is complete at the r. Aero rolls forward. Aero isn’t a discrete word in English. As a prefix, air needs to connect itself to plane, physicist or dynamic to make sense.
Aer-o-plane is an unusual but acceptable version of the English word for a flying machine, anywhere in the world, but its unusualness in the mouth of a Memphis teenager calls your attention. That extra attention is satisfied by aeroplane’s perfect, pulsing three-syllable energy.
There’s speed and intention in the word aeroplane when it’s pinned to the music of The Letter. The clear three-syllable form of the word mirrors the insistent rap-rap-rap of the snare drum that opens the song. The complete, 3 beat, lively energy of aer-o-plane makes the fast train option of the second line sound slightly sad and slow. If Alex had sung airplane instead of aeroplane, he would have lost that subtle difference in energy between the two transport options. Aeroplane/fast train – we register the word with the strong forward motion painted clearly by its sound. Airplane/fast train – who cares?
Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane sounds as wonderfully casual as gimme the car keys. The line holds a quick solution to the longing of far-apart lovers. Just hop on a plane. Easy. The rolling power of the word aeroplane is key to that sensation of movement and possibility.
Skipping across the Atlantic to choose the version of English that suits your song is popular. Think of David Bowie’s clever use of the American version of sparkle here, to bring the Space Race closer, or Liza Minnelli’s borrowing of the British pronunciation of pretty here, to break her audience’s heart. It’s always a powerful choice. Your audience always notices.
The Letter doesn’t live or die as a song from the pronunciation of a single word. But, as Alex Chilton put it here: “It gives you a feeling of immediacy and movement. I think a lot of people were in Vietnam and that was their fondest dream – a ticket to get out and back home.”
Mr Chilton himself had some extra personal magic, on and off stage. I visited the William Eggleston exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery at the weekend and found this photo of two of Alex’s neighbours after a party, one heartbroken by his indifference, the other soon to become his muse:
Words speak to the heart, in complicated ways. Alex had to cross the Atlantic to find aeroplane, but it’s his clear intention and the quality of his voice that turn the word to gold.
© Sing Better English, 2016